New Jersey Superior Court Judge John Russo Jr., whose judicial career has been marked with ethics charges and battles with superiors, now faces a sexual harassment suit by his former law clerk.
Valisha Desir claims the harassment took place after she became Russo’s law clerk in Ocean County Superior Court in January 2017. The suit was filed by Neil Mullin of Smith Mullin in Montclair.
Judiciary spokeswoman MaryAnn Spoto had no comment on the suit. A call to Russo’s chambers was not returned. And a lawyer representing Russo in an unrelated ethics case, Keyport solo David Corrigan, also did not return a call seeking comment.
Desir’s suit accuses Russo of regularly invading her space by placing himself in unusually close proximity to her, and ignoring her requests to stop such behavior. Desir also describes an incident where Russo called her into his office, where he was sitting with his legs spread wide open. She stood about five feet from where he was sitting, but he repeatedly asked her to come closer, the suit claims. When she declined, he became irate and told her to “get out of here,” the complaint states.
Desir also said she sent an email to Marlene Lynch Ford, the Ocean County assignment judge, two weeks after she started working for Russo, in which she expressed satisfaction with her assignment and complimented Russo’s mentoring of her. But Desir says she only sent the email because Russo ordered her to send it.
Russo repeatedly told her about his political connections and ability to ruin careers, making her reluctant to report his misconduct, Desir’s suit alleges. Russo, a former mayor of Toms River and the son of former Senate President John Russo Sr., told Desir he was responsible for forcing former Gov. James McGreevey to resign, and that he damaged the teaching career of his ex-wife, Karen Russo. Russo’s statements had the effect of exerting control over Desir, who believed he was capable of ruining her career and reputation, the suit states.
Desir, who is black and of Haitian descent, said Russo asked her how she felt being “colonized” when he learned about her ethnicity, and also asked if her parents were still married and if all the children in her family had the same father, the suit claims.
One day in April 2017, Russo summoned Desir into his courtroom, asking her to come closer, but she refused, according to the complaint. Holding a probation file for which Desir was not responsible, he asked her if she had “screened” the file, to which she said she hadn’t. Russo, irate, threw the file at her aggressively, the suit claims. The following day, Desir told Ford she could not continue to work with Russo. Desir was then reassigned to Ford’s chambers, where she stayed until she completed her clerkship in August 2017.
Desir’s suit seeks economic damages for career-path losses, compensation for reputational damage, compensatory damages for pain and suffering, punitive damages and attorney fees and costs.
Russo was confirmed in December 2015. In April 2017, he filed a federal lawsuit against the judiciary, Ford and Ocean County Presiding Family Division Judge Madelin Einbinder, claiming he was subject to a hostile work environment because of the amount of time he spent caring for his disabled teenage son.
And in March 2018, the Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct issued a complaint against Russo in connection with four incidents. In one of the incidents, a woman was seeking a restraining order in Russo’s court against a man who, she alleged, abandoned her along a roadway, threatened to burn her house down and sexually assaulted her. The complaint says Russo, from the bench, asked the woman if she tried to “close your legs,” “run away,” “block your body parts” or call police.
In other incidents in the ethics complaint, Russo is accused of calling a family division manager in Burlington County for help reschedule his own case, failing to recuse from a family court matter assigned to him that involved a man with whom he attended high school, and calling a woman involved in a paternity dispute to warn her that she could be sanctioned if she did not heed a court order to submit to a paternity test.
Russo was placed on administrative leave for nearly 20 months after the ethics complaint was filed. In December 2018, he returned to the bench, assigned to the Civil Division in Burlington County. The ethics case is still pending, and Russo’s civil suit was stayed, pending the outcome of the disciplinary proceedings.
Plaintiffs lawyer Mullin said his client “held judges in high esteem. It was a shock to her system to have a man who she so respected behave in such a crude and crass manner.”